Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
February 7, 2017
There are some books that imprint on you so deeply that you know you’ll be re-reading them for the rest of your life. Amberlough is one of those books for me. When I finished reading it for the first time last summer I needed three things: a stiff drink, a massage, and the next book in the series A.S.A.P! Never before have I been so tense while reading a book! Like most of my all-time favourites, I found it nearly impossible to put down and when I hit the last page I desperately wanted to start all over again, already missing the adrenaline high that came from being so caught up in and deeply moved by a story.
Set against the rise to power of the fascist One State Party (nicknamed the “Ospies”), Amberlough is deeply relevant in our troubled political times. Like our own cosmopolitans, the glittering, but corrupt, Amberlough City is home to a diverse group of people, including spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, smuggler and emcee at the popular Bumble Bee Cabaret. After his cover is blown on a mission, the emotionally and physically scarred Cyril becomes a turncoat in order to preserve his life. A feeling of danger pervades Amberlough, but there’s also art, beauty, and love. While its undoubtedly an espionage thriller, at its heart Amberlough is a story about people and the choices, and sacrifices, they make under pressure.
All three of the viewpoint characters are vivid, realistic, and flawed. Cyril, who has been so shaped by a near-death experience that it influences every choice he makes. Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the Bee, has clawed her way out of the city slums and is clever, underestimated, and unashamed. And Ari, who has rebuilt himself from the ground up complete with affected stutter, city accent, and luxurious tastes. The relationships between characters were a highlight of the book for me as well. All of these connections are fully realized, but it’s the dance of a relationship between Ari and Cyril, as both compartmentalize and turn a blind eye to certain aspects of each other’s business, that I loved most.
I’m a sucker for moral ambiguity and it’s here in spades. The first novel in the Amberlough Dossier trilogy is the kind of book that makes you examine your own morals and wonder: How far would you go? Would you fight rising fascism, even if the conclusion seems foregone? Would you flee if you could save the people you cared most about in the world?
Donnelly’s prose is exquisite; atmospheric and sensual it creates a richly imagined sense of place. I especially admire her gift for describing the regional accents and affectations of her characters, from Cordelia’s slum whine to Tory’s northern burr, in a fantasy world where general knowledge of each country’s accent can’t be relied upon. For all that I loved the language and dialogue between characters, so much in Amberlough is unsaid; It’s communicated through a glance, a gesture, an action that convey the significance of a relationship more than a declaration of love.
Although I can’t imagine it was intentional, Amberlough‘s release, just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, is timely. It’s chilling to watch how easily the fascist One State Party rises to power as it fixes an election and bribes the police force, particularly in a diverse world where characters of colour, characters who are homosexual, and women in leadership roles are able to thrive.
Exploring themes of nationalism, fascism, and hatred, Amberlough is, at times, a dark and depressing read, but it also embraces diversity, the power of art, and love in a story that is thought-provoking, sensual, and deeply engrossing. I cannot wait to see how the trilogy wraps up later this month!